In the first step of people-centred development, we have to answer the question, whose problem are we actually solving? Who are the people we are focusing on? Our solution will not usually satisfy all parties; therefore, we have to identify our group(s) of people and find out as much as possible about them. We can pick a smaller sample of people who represent the users or clients, or we can try and talk with everyone in focus - it all depends on our individual project, as well as capabilities, budget, skills, staff, etc.
Establishing a partnership between higher education, research, and industry
While the benefits of qualitative research and practical value of anthropology, sociology, or related disciplines may seem fairly straightforward to graduates, researchers and academics, the decision-makers, managers, engineers or economists might not be giddy with excitement when an aspiring graduate of social sciences suggests messing with their innovation or development processes. They might question the validity and effectiveness of the research methods and findings or bring up the dreaded question of “what’s my ROI1?” Likewise, social scientists, accustomed to sitting in or delivering lectures and drafting independent research plans, might find themselves disoriented in the world of business, technology, and hard-core finance. If we want this partnership between qualitative research and industry to work to the benefit of all stakeholders, we have to address some of the most common issues, concerns, and questions arising on both sides.
First, read how Anna Kirah uses storytelling and failed design projects to show decision-makers who are not familiar with people-centred development approaches or qualitative research in general. She uses these techniques to demonstrate why research with people is crucial if companies want to see their ideas (products, services) succeed. We explain how applied research differs from traditional kinds of research and how the partnership between our very different stakeholders can be maintained throughout the project lifespan (and beyond, hopefully).
Think of products or services in your surroundings (neighbourhood, village, town, city, country) that are somehow “failed”. These could be for instance household products that you or your family and friends own and are failing to serve their stated purpose or are extremely difficult to use, buildings or public spaces that are user-unfriendly (e.g. a ridiculously steep wheelchair ramp), poorly planned or executed services (e.g. number dispensers at the supermarket’s deli department), etc. Describe in one or two paragraphs how this product or service fails to serve the people (its users or customers) - write it as a short (funny or sad) story, using characters based on real-life people that have to deal with this failed design. What happened to them? In the next paragraph, explain how a people-centred research and development approach could improve your chosen example. (Sometimes, admittedly, the research could show that the idea itself was failed and that it is not worth developing that particular product or service - that’s OK, too!)
The best way to change mindsets among managers is to show them failed products
Anna Kirah, design anthropologist, explains that it often proves difficult to persuade the decision-makers, managers, or CEOs that people-centred research and development approaches are crucial in product or service development. While she has a number of successful projects already up her sleeve that she can use as best practice examples when negotiating her role in a new project, this might not be the case for aspiring applied social scientists and humanities graduates. Kirah explains that one of the most effective ways to argue for the value and relevance of qualitative research is to “show them the failed products”
“As an example, I use my train station, which is a disaster,” Anna Kirah explains. “The old wooden train station had a heated room, it was warm and passengers talked with each other while waiting for their train. Now we have beautiful architecture on top of the hill: two ‘aquariums’, glass boxes. Nobody stands in them because it is colder in there than it is outside. When it is -25 degrees Celsius, people are standing outside. When it is pouring rain, they are still standing outside. In addition, they didn’t think about the fact where they placed it. Now everybody has to drive to it, while before people could walk to it. And the parking place is
too small. So, how is that helping the world? They wasted the taxpayers' money because they didn’t ask us what we wanted and need: they built it for us, not with us.”